Most divorcing people I’ve talked with dream of having a good relationship one day. A relationship that is playful, honoring, companionable, intimate, safe, and offers a soft place to land. Perhaps you have that desire, too. But how the heck do get that, especially when the heart has been broken?

Many believe we will have a great relationship when we find the right person. Sure, a well-matched partner is important, but even that doesn’t do us a whole lot of good once we’re in the thick of the day-to-day relating and mess it all up because we don’t know better.

Even the best-matched couples experience behaviors that get in the way. John Gottman, Ph.D. is a relationship researcher. He spent 16 years studying couples and identifying the relationship behaviors that work and those that don’t. He found four behaviors that were so destructive to a relationship that he called them:

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt 
  3. Defensiveness 
  4. Stonewalling

I think it’s useful to understand these horsemen. Not only will knowing them help with future romance, the information just may save us some angst at work and with family, too.

This article is the first of a series of articles about these four horsemen. Gottman’s research was focused on couples, so I’ve done that also, but the principles are the same for any relationship. If you’re in conflict with someone at work, or a parent or child or sibling, check to see any of these horsemen are galloping into the relationship. If so, use these tips to steer clear.


Complaints happen in any relationship. Complaints are merely unspoken requests and can be managed by being pro-active and turning the complaint into a request. See Tip #1. Differences are easily resolved when requests are spoken and met.

There is a big difference between complaining and criticizing. A complaint addresses a specific failed action. Criticism adds a layer of negativity. It is about one’s character failings. It’s more personal. “You always…” and “You never…” are telltale signs.

Here are 6 Tips for Reducing Criticism

1. Criticize the behavior and not the person

Turn your complaints into requests. Instead of: “You SOB, why didn’t you tell me we were going to Aunt Sally’s this weekend?”  Try: “I would like to know your plans ahead of time. Next time, will you tell me earlier?”

2. Listen to the message behind the words

If your partner is being critical, listen for the reasonable request embedded in the complaint. Don’t deflect it.  If you hear, “You didn’t tell me we were going to Aunt Sally’s” simply say: “I’m sorry. Would you like me to let you know about the plans I make ahead of time?”  (You will likely be amazed at the speed with which this disarms the entire conflict.) People want to know their concerns matter.

3. Make requests instead of demands

Realize also that a request can be met with ‘yes’ ‘no’ or a renegotiation of some kind. All are valid responses and “legal.” A request must not be a demand in expectations, words, or body language. Your partner has no obligation to comply, but it will be your best shot at getting what you desire. Relationships that honor each other’s freedoms to say no are generally strong and vital, held together by values instead of compliance.

4. Don’t worry about who is doing what to whom, instead ask:

“What’s trying to happen in this relationship?”
 And “What does the relationship need from us now?”

Conflict gets a bad rap and is avoided by most people. Once you know that conflict is created when your relationship wants to go deeper you can have more tolerance for it. Conflict is the process of incorporating something that is currently missing into your relationship. When it wants to go deeper it is looking for a new layer of trust. “Can I go deeper with you?”

5. Take Ownership

Even if your partner had a bigger contribution to the problem you will not feel as powerless if you are aware of how you, too, contributed to the problem and what you can do to change it.  There is power in ownership. Waiting for someone else to change before you can be happy can keep you in emotional bondage for a lifetime.

6. Apologize

If your partner says you were critical, apologize, even if you do not feel you were. People need to know their concerns matter. What matters most is how your partner experienced you.

Remain curious as you listen to the other describe the impact of what you said, then take responsibility for cleaning up any messes you made, even if you made them inadvertently.

Learning a new behavior is just like learning any other skill. It can be hard at first. But even while you’re learning you can go a long way toward raising the level of positivity in your relationship, which is another key Gottman found to making a relationship work.

Now that you understand the horsemen you are more empowered. However, if they’ve been running loose in your relationship for a long time you probably need some help corralling them. Give me a call.  That’s what I’m here for. Let’s get you back in the saddle of a good relationship.

303-746-7000 or email.